Train Forest Guards to Protect Guatemalan Forest

by EcoLogic Development Fund

Traditional payment for ecosystem services (PES) models are built around the concept of a monetary value assigned to a specific service, good, or product provided by the natural environment to the benefit of people—for example, water resources, carbon stored in biomass, and forest products. Through a PES scheme, communities or individuals receive monetary payment in exchange for conserving the ecosystems providing the services. It is a win-win with benefits for both the people who benefit from the service (e.g. the people downstream who are supplied with drinking water) and those who ensure provision of the service (e.g. the rural people who conserve the natural water source).  PES is centered around a monetary value agreed upon by both sides. As such, it is a popular model receiving global attention among world leaders, policy makers, conservation organizations, and communities.

While the literature points to several successful examples of these traditional PES models, there is emerging research documenting cases of communities contesting or radically altering conventional PES or PES-like schemes. Community leaders in countries such as Mexico and Japan have expressed a range of concerns with PES, from exclusion of traditional knowledge to the commodification of a core source of spiritual and cultural identity: nature. Currently, greater discussions are emerging among community leaders, practitioners, and academics regarding “alternative conceptualizations” of PES. Additional documentation of communities who have contested or altered PES to meet their needs can help provide tools and insights required to ensure conservation programs reflect values, beliefs, and dignity of rural communities considering such programs.

During my time as an EcoLogic intern, I have had the dual role of working with EcoLogic staff Dave Kramer and Andrea Savage to adapt my research to make it an important contribution to EcoLogic’s projects in the area, while producing my own research in coordination with Duke University’s Nicholas School of the Environment for my Masters of Environmental Management degree. With the guidance of EcoLogic and my thesis adviser Liz Shapiro, I will be researching and assessing specific case studies of how communities have adapted PES-like programs to reflect their culture and needs. One of the principal variations is on how the value for the ecosystem service is represented, where cultural norms and beliefs permit value to be expressed in terms other than as monetary.

My research goal is to determine what cultural norms and beliefs are associated to nature and how they are valued by local people. This will help EcoLogic and other conservation practitioners to further understand how communities can participate in conservation of ecosystem services and resource exchange in ways that are aligned with and support their traditions and belief systems. 


Annie Spaulding (left background) learning about sustainable farming in Guatemala

I will be sure to circle back to EcoLogic eNews readers with the results!

workshop participants showing off their creativity
workshop participants showing off their creativity

EcoLogic is always looking for ways to expand our toolbox of practices and techniques that inspire the active participation of rural communities is conservation. And we’re also always looking for ways to connect our partners to the skills and expertise of other groups that can add value to our collective work. There are a few aspects to EcoLogic's stove program in Totonicapan that you may not know about - like our partnership with ArtCorps! EcoLogic’s relationship with ArtCorps is a perfect example of both of these efforts. This past month, EcoLogic and ArtCorps combined forces once again to conduct a hands-on workshop with teachers in Totonicapán, Guatemala. A key component of our initiative in Totonicapán is working with our local partner, the Association of Communal Mayors of the 48 Cantones, to preserve indigenous Maya K’iche’ knowledge and beliefs around forest protection—beliefs which have enabled the K’iche’ communities of Totonicapán to effectively protect over 50,000 acres of forest for the past 800 years—and making sure that that knowledge passes down to younger generations. To achieve this, we use several techniques, including leveraging the expertise of ArtCorps!

ArtsCorps is a non-profit arts education organization dedicated to developing creative habits of mind in young people. EcoLogic and ArtCorps are old friends, having worked together in both Honduras and Guatemala. In 2012, we jointly released a children’s book of stories and pictures related to environmental stewardship created by indigenous children of Totonicapán. This time around, ArtCorps held a three-day workshop to train teachers in arts-based methods for building leadership, transferring knowledge, and inspiring creative action for positive behavior change related to environmental protection. ArtCorps, in collaboration with EcoLogic and our local partner, agreed to train teachers from 18 different primary and middle schools in the region. Teachers are a critical population to equip: they have a captive, eager audience in the classroom; they can influence a large number of students; and they can utilize the techniques for years to come.

Once teachers are trained by ArtCorps, EcoLogic assists them in identifying how to apply those skills so that children understand and become inspired to maintain their unique cultural heritage which is so tightly linked to nature and its protection.

After a series of ice-breakers and creative introductions, a key activity of the workshop was to collectively design a giant tree that represents their community. The roots represent people’s dependency on nature. The trunk represents the current state of natural resources and their threats and challenges. The branches represent the skills, knowledge, and talents that community members have. And the leaves represent ideas for how to apply those skills and talents in ways that address the identified challenges. As EcoLogic’s Regional Program Director, Gabriela González, expressed “the tree model was an incredibly effective way for the teachers to reflect upon and analyze issues and solutions.” And this model can be replicated in the classroom quite easily because it is so interactive, creative, and colorful.

Many of the teachers approached EcoLogic staff after the workshop—freshly inspired and humming with ideas—and shared their interest in expanding our reforestation program in Totonicapán. Over the past 8 years, EcoLogic and the 48 Cantones have organized and trained community members to reforest over 500,000 trees! But there is certainly more that can be done. It was great to hear the interest and drive amongst the teachers. They also urged us to replicate the workshop in other communities in the area because so many more schools would benefit from the tools they gained. Moving forward, we are particularly excited to see the teachers apply their new skills in the classroom, and to see what kind of new solutions and recommendations the students come up with as well!

Community-based trainings such are these comprise one element of our integrated approach for protecting the communal forest of Totonicapán. In addition to our work preserving and transmitting traditional K’iche’ knowledge and beliefs related to forest stewardship, we are also working with community members to reforest areas that are essential for water provision (over the past 8 years, EcoLogic and the 48 Cantones have organized and trained community members to reforest over 500,000 trees!), installing fuel-efficient wood stoves in communities in order to decrease pressure on the forest (195 stoves were installed in Totonicapán in 2015), and working with our partner and local authorities to curb illegal logging that takes place in the forest.
Antonio and Staff in agroforestry field, Guatemala
Antonio and Staff in agroforestry field, Guatemala

EcoLogic’s newest field technician is Antonio Reyes Montejo, who has been working in the northern municipality of Ixcán, Guatemala for about six months. In this interview, Antonio explains why he loves his new role and why he is so passionate about agroforestry, forest guards, and all of the many strategies of EcoLogic’s conservation work in Ixcán.

What is your role with EcoLogic?

It’s to facilitate, share, and accompany. To be a connector for communities so they can access resources that will help them. I also ensure that our partners know how to best use and manage the resources and strategies that EcoLogic brings to them. Achieving results and being consistent are two of the most important considerations of my work.

How do you believe EcoLogic’s work in Ixcán is making a positive difference for communities?

By accompanying and supporting communities in conserving the land, in reforestation, in implementing alternatives such as seed diversification, sustainable agriculture, and beekeeping, their quality of life is improved. These actions conserve nature and offer benefits to the environment and people’s health. It also benefits families economically because they consume what they harvest and sell some for extra income. Our actions improve the quality of the land and thus, produces a better harvest. And women in particular benefit from fuel-efficient stoves because they don’t have to gather and consume as much wood and their cooking is safer and easier.

What motivates you to conserve nature and work so closely with rural communities?

Nature gives us life. All living beings depend on it. We’re obligated to take care of it, conserve it, and protect it. Nature is our mother.

Plus, I like the work. Working with the communities is inspiring because the families we work with are so grateful and supportive. It’s such a rewarding and important job, in the end we all benefit.

What role do forest guards play in the conservation of Ixcán?

Forest guards play an important role in the protection of forests and their habitat.  It’s necessary to maintain constant surveillance and monitoring, especially during burning seasons because many people burn in an irresponsible manner, leading to significant risk of native species loss. In 2015 I took a course to become a forest firefighter so I could contribute to addressing the underlying problem of forest fires. In EcoLogic’s project, those serving as forest guards are in charge of watching and monitoring to prevent forest fires as well as illegal logging of timber species in the communities they live in. They also serve as ‘promotors’ of EcoLogic’s strategies in the communities where they live, acting as local-level resources for their neighbors.

I think it’s necessary to train forest guards and provide them with adequate tools to do good work, since what they have reforested in the last few years in communities could be lost due to the threat of slash and burn agriculture, which is practiced by farmers to prepare their land for planting crops. EcoLogic has worked to curtail the over-use of slash and burn practices, but it’s not something that can change overnight. Rather, it requires continuous work. .

What do you like most about working with EcoLogic?

The relationship with people in the communities, which over time becomes so close-knit. Knowing that we have common objectives to conserve and protect our natural resources is a feeling of belonging. We help communities know that they’re not alone in the constant fight for environmental protection. We reassure them that nature and its resources will last for future generations, so that those generations can live in harmony with a healthy environment. Contributing to making that possible brings me great personal satisfaction.

What is your dream for the communities you work with and for nature in Ixcán?

I would say my biggest dream is to raise people’s awareness about taking care of the environment. We all contribute to the forces that threaten nature. I think that if we are able to understand the harm that our current actions can have on the future, we will be more responsible in our choices. The majority of the time, people don’t consider how their day-to-day actions are harmful to the environment, but added up they become very dangerous. In summary, my dream is that we are more involved and aware, not only for ourselves but also for others.

Antonio’s enthusiasm for reforestation and protecting the biodiversity of Ixcán inspires us, and we hope it inspires you! Your support permits EcoLogic to train forest guards to protect the ecosystems in this region of Guatemala, putting necessary tools into the hands of local people. Thank you so much for continuing to share this passion with us, and with Antonio.


This interview was translated by Amanda Foster, EcoLogic Intern

We are pleased to provide an update on the positive impact our work has had on the members of the local communities in northern Guatemala.  In the beautiful words of one of our onsite technicians Elmer Urizar:

I love being able to share knowledge with people and to bring them options that they didn’t have before. I’m motivated by knowing that what I do has a real impact on the lives of members of my community. I am able to show them that there are solutions to the problems they face, and that’s the most inspiring feeling in the world.

Thanks to our committed local staff—like Elmer—and your support, over the last year we have made a significant positive difference on local livelihoods and the health of the forest.

One of the main goals of the project is to reduce deforestation in the Nentón, Pojóm, and Ixcán river watersheds and to stop the advancement of the agricultural frontier. In working towards this objective, we led five educational workshops on how to organize and sustainably manage community microwatersheds.  In the Pacomal microwatershed we built 18 fuel-efficient stoves, reforested 12.35 acres of the Santo Domingo community, trained 12 promotors on small-scale sustainable farming techniques, trained additional forest guards, and implemented 1 new tree nursery.  In the Cambalam microwatershed we built 17 fuel efficient stoves, reforested 9.88 acres, and established 1 new tree nursery.

Under the management of natural regeneration, reforestation, and agroforest systems, to conserve and restore 74 acres.  In working towards this objective, we lead four training workshops for the 240 recipients of our stoves. We also monitored reforestation of 432.25 acres conducted in 2013-2015, to ensure tree survival. We established 12.35 acres of agroforestry systems, and about 100 acres of natural regeneration from the Yaluquel community (where work is completed by the women).  Additionally, we carried out native species reforestation in 26.68 acres. 

EcoLogic wants to thank you for your ongoing support as we continue to work hard for the future of the Guatemalan forest.

Isabela (center) & fellow female forest guardians
Isabela (center) & fellow female forest guardians

“People told us we couldn’t participate, that we couldn’t work, because we were women.” But Isabela set out to prove them wrong. At just 21 years old, Isabela has already made a name for herself as a passionate and articulate advocate for women’s rights and environmental conservation. She’s a young Maya Chuj from Huehuetenango, Guatemala, and she’s been helping indigenous women become environmental leaders. Since 2012, she’s worked as the Coordinator of the Municipal Office of Women, a local initiative designed to bring more opportunities to women.

Many women are now pioneers of environmental conservation in the area, which Isabela is proud to note. EcoLogic has helped its local partner in the area, the Northern Border Municipalities Alliance, train and educate community members in sustainable forest management and reforestation. Women, too, have become forest guardians, planting seedlings, taking care of standing forests and educating others. “The trainings that EcoLogic has organized have been incredibly important for us. Most women in this area cannot read, and before EcoLogic started working with us they hardly knew anything about the environment,” says Isabela. Now, “women are educated and empowered to work, to take care of our precious natural resources for the good of their whole community.”

Isabela’s work is still far from complete. “Women are always the most vulnerable, and the most forgotten. The hard work that we do, especially in our homes,is never recognized,” Isabela says, with an edge of frustration in her voice. But thanks to both her leadership and the resources that EcoLogic has provided to her community, more women than ever in San Mateo Ixatán have found opportunities to work - while protecting and restoring the ecosystems upon which their families and communities depend. And they’ve done a lot of work. In the past year, (2014) EcoLogic and MFN have worked together on all sorts of environmental initiatives, including  

  • Reforesting 70 hectares of degraded forest habitat
  • Training 16 new community leaders as forest guardians who are now actively promoting sustainable environmental practices
  • Establishing four new community-­managed greenhouses
  • Improved and supported an additional six greenhouses, including installing irrigation systems, seeding several thousand native trees, and applying organic herbicides and fungicides
  • Establishing 33 hectares of agroforestry parcels to reduce expansion of the agricultural frontier.
  • Running seven environmental education workshops at secondary schools.
  • Building 103 fuel-­efficient stoves in family homes to reduce deforestation for fuel

“I am motivated to work to ensure that the women in my community are recognized. I work for all women. That’s what inspires me,” says Isabela.



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EcoLogic Development Fund

Location: Cambridge, MA - USA
Website: http:/​/​
Project Leader:
Alexa Piacenza
Program Associate
Cambridge, Massachusetts United States

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